Saturday, March 5, 2016

Will Hoge - Never Give In

With a suitcase full of empty dreams
A guitar with broken strings
A busted heart that longs to sing the blues
A mind that always leads me wrong
A head full of Hank Williams songs
I’m sorry honey, but this highway’s home

The above lines were the last words that Nashville country music artist Will Hoge delivered on his 2007 masterpiece Draw the Curtains, my favorite album from that particular year and one of the five best records anyone wrote all last decade. The song they come from, “This Highway’s Home” has long functioned more or less as a weather-worn mission statement for Hoge’s career. He’s a lifer, a wandering troubadour who has never gotten to experience much of the glamor of the mainstream music industry, but a guy who has still made due with a fiercely loyal fanbase, a collective of terrific live and studio musicians, a beat-up van that functions as a tour bus, and a penchant for writing honest and heartfelt songs that bridge the gap between sun-kissed country twang, anthemic Americana, and barnstorming rock ‘n’ roll. From the wrenching break-up tunes that populated Draw the Curtains to the rage-fueled political tirades of last year’s Election-time EP, Modern American Protest Music, Hoge has always felt to me like this generation’s underground answer to Bruce Springsteen.

All of those ingredients coalesce on Never Give In, Hoge’s eighth full-length studio record and arguably his tightest and most consistent work to date. It’s also the first record he’s made in the wake of his newfound success in the mainstream country music world, though that success has not come in the traditional manner. In fact, most fans of country radio probably still don’t have a clue who Will Hoge is, but they’ve certainly heard at least one of his songs. Last year, the Eli Young Band re-recorded Hoge’s “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” a roots pop gem from 2009’s The Wreckage, and turned it into a number one hit on the country charts (and a top 40 hit on the pop charts). Award nominations from the Grammys, the CMA, and the ACM followed, and to add to his good fortune, Hoge even landed a support slot on a Dierks Bentley arena tour. Suddenly, the workmanlike, everyman singer-songwriter was hitting the big time.

Hoge’s golden year continued this summer, when Chevy tapped a song he had written—“Strong,” which appears in bonus track form here—as the tune that would ground its 2014 Silverado ad campaign. As I watched all of this sudden success, remembering the one time I had gotten to see Hoge live—in a miniscule venue, with a crowd that couldn’t have been bigger than a hundred people—I was thrilled to see people finally discovering the guy who I’d held for years to be the best kept secret in the music industry. However, as Hoge was folded into Nashville’s mainstream country world, with an album announcement for Never Give In timed perfectly to take advantage of all the industry buzz, I worried that the album would be his sell-out record.

Instead, Never Give In is arguably Hoge’s most confident, focused, and dare I say best work to date. Drenched in E Street swagger, gospel-infused back-up vocals, and layers of B3 organ ripped straight from the finest folk-rock records of the nineties, every one of these songs feels like an instant classic, from the pile-driving anthemia of “A Different Man,” the album’s resurrection-themed commencement, to the autumnal, Kris Kristofferson lilt of “Pale September.” Not only is Never Give In devoid of weak points, but it also just feels like the record that Hoge was born to write, distilling every element that has made each of his records special into a singular work that consistently reflects his best qualities as a singer and songwriter. The gospel choirs are a callback to “When I Get My Wings,” the triumphant, church-bound closer from Number Seven (Hoge’s last full-length), while the soulfully climactic guitar solo from the piano-based, blues-laden ballad, “This Time Around,” effectively revisits “Silver or Gold,” a key track from Draw the Curtains.

However, while the nostalgia is firmly in place, the melodies strong, and the performances nothing short of incendiary, Never Give In ultimately triumphs because it does what every great country music record should: it tells vivid and wonderful stories. Hoge’s storytelling has never been stronger than it is here. He’s learned to balance massive and punchy choruses with eloquent and concise turns of phrase, and he’s also gained a touch of subtlety that was missing from much of his early work. Where the political musings of last year’s Modern American Protest Music occasionally came off as a bit heavy-handed, or where a few of Number Seven's lesser tracks felt like blatant attempts at Springsteen-like “issue” songs, the songwriting on Never Give In has a kind of effortless flow that only comes from years of experience.

For the most part, Hoge accomplishes the feat by keeping his writing in the autobiographical zone. The chiming title track, for instance, is a hymn to undying resilience, written both for Hoge’s durable marriage and for his ever-loyal fanbase, while “Damn Spotlight (Julia’s Song),” the proper album closer, is an emotional lullaby about life on the road and the toll it takes on families. But even when Hoge examines outside characters, as he does on “Daddy Was a Gambling Man,” the album’s centerpiece story song, the result feels timeless in a way that not a lot of modern country music does. The organic, full-bodied arrangement doesn’t hurt, with delicate acoustic guitars, a mournful pedal steel, and a flickeringly nostalgic electric guitar solo all working as callbacks to country music 40, 50, or 60 years in the rearview. But it’s the words that hit the hardest. The song weaves a tale of a man, good at heart but lost to his own compulsive gambling habit, and the woman who stands by his side with love and devotion, even as his destructive habits threaten her happiness, her family, and her entire way of life. When Hoge sings “Mama said love comes with a price/It’s a turn of the cards, it’s a roll of the dice” on the bridge, it’s a remarkably simple moment, but one that is utterly devastating as well. The song wrenchingly shows the rough side of unconditional love, and it’s not difficult to imagine the same notes and lyrics coming from the lips of a country music legend like Hank Williams or George Jones. On Never Give In, Hoge has absolutely reached the level of the all-time greats.

But Never Give In isn’t all sad-sack balladry. The redemptive “Goodbye Ain’t Always Gone” turns the bittersweet emotions of a farewell into a rousing and hopeful road trip song, while the record’s two most raucous rock songs, “Home is Where the Heart Breaks” and “Bad Old Days,” turn old cliche phrases on their heads and use them as the backbone to some of the most lively, potent, and resilient songwriting in Hoge’s catalog. The former is a Springsteenian examination of broken American dreams, while the latter is a fond, tongue-in-cheek glance back iat the bad decisions and unforgettable nights that come from being young, dumb, and broke. The songs may be similar in tempo and structure—both rely on soaring choruses, tightly wound verses, and domineering guitar riffs—but their moods differ entirely. “Home is Where the Heart Breaks” is biting and indignant (“To me he was never more than just a picture on the wall, and for my 16th birthday all he could give me was a call,” Hoge sings about an absentee father) while “Bad Old Days” blends sarcasm with nostalgia (“Women and whiskey and wicked ways, sometimes I long for those bad old days”) for a track that recalls “God Don’t Make Lonely Girls” from the 1996 Wallflowers classic, Bringing Down the Horse. Both are searing live staples in the making.

It’s hard for me to say outright that Never Give In is the greatest album Will Hoge has ever made, since his older records, The Wreckage and Draw the Curtains especially, mean so much to me. But without a doubt, this record is the best one-album snapshot of who Hoge is as an musician. It’s one of those records that catches its artist at the top of his game from all angles, whether the songs are loud or soft, country or rock ‘n’ roll, sad or uplifting, serious or sarcastic, or some all-encompassing blend of everything. At times, Never Give In is a rousing send up of 1970s E Street proportions; elsewhere, it’s a reminder of a time when the country music on the radio was deep and vibrant and full of feeling; and at other times, it’s a glance back at the early and mid-nineties, when bands like the Wallflowers, Counting Crows, and Whiskeytown were still contending for mainstream recognition. In other words, it’s a time capsule record, not just of Hoge’s career—though it is that—abut lso of folk, country, and rock music from the past half a century. Suffice to say, it’s a trip that any music fan should be happy to take, and the fact that a guy as likable as Hoge is the curator of it all just makes the journey that much more rewarding.

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